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Oh Say, Can You Spell? (Probably Not)

I consider myself a pretty good speller, at least compared to the imbeciles who frequent CraigsList.

Have you ever seen a listing there that didn't include at least one misspelled word? I often look at drums for sale on CraigsList, and it's a horror show of "simbals," "cymbols" and "cymbles." And don't even get me started on the various ways cymbal manufacturer Zildjian can be mangled. (I mean, the name is printed on the cymbal, dude! Just copy it down!)

But the older I get, the more words I misspell -- or rather, misuse. A while back I had a bad spell in my column where I repeatedly used "hanger" for the big building where airplanes sleep. I seem incapable of using the word "peek" when I want to say "took a quick glimpse," using "peak" instead.

This bothers me, but of course not as much as it bothers some readers, who love writing in to point out my shortcomings: "As a high school English teacher I was appalled... As a frequent reader of The Post... As a direct descendant of Daniel Webster... As the person who invented the word 'hangar'...." You get the idea.

Now comes word from Britain that I am not alone.

"Americans embarrassed by poor spelling performance compared to Britons" reads the headline in today's Telegraph. "Despite the popularity of school spelling bee competitions," the article says, "adults in the U.S. fared poorly in a survey comparing how English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic deal with commonly misspelt words."

Well, let's look at that survey, shall we? In it, 62 percent of American adults spelled "embarrassed" wrong, compared to 54 percent of Britons. More Americans also flubbed "millennium" (52 percent wrong versus 43 percent), "liaison" (61 percent to 54 percent) and "accommodation" (42 percent to 36 percent).

However, get a load of this sentence from the Telegraph article: "Only 'definitely' and 'friend' were spelt correctly by more Americans."

I don't know about you, but I'd be embarrassed to live in a country where people didn't know how to spell "friend," even if they could spell "millennium."

As I mentioned, what I have a problem with are homonyms, words that sound alike but have different meanings. I don't have trouble telling "stationary" from "stationery" but after that, all bets are off. And as finger-wagging readers love to point out, spellcheck can't help you there (or their [or they're]).

I figure it's a result of my increasing age, combined with the sheer volume of words I must process every day. I defy my critics to pitch a perfect game every start.

I found a list of homonyms and their definitions online. I was familiar with most of them , but this one was a surprise:

weather: meteorological conditions
wether: a castrated ram
whether: if it be the case

Poor ram.

The Telegraph article said the spelling survey was commissioned by a group called the Spelling Society, who seem on a quixotic quest to convince the ESW (that's "English-speaking world") to "modernise" our language. I can't tell exactly what the Spelling Society wants to do, but one position paper includes a section headlined "Texting: Are we for it, against it, or neutral?"

They seem to sort of be for it, since they appear to want to simplify our spelling.You can even find on its Web site some examples of "nue speling," such as this 1913 passage on how modified spelling would benefit the disabled and foreigners:

Dhe saeving ov tiem wood be stil mor markt in dhe teeching ov dhe defektiv. Our prezent speling graevly hamperz dhe eforts ov dhoez huu devoet dhemselvz to dhe eduekaeshon ov dhe bliend and ov dhe def and dum.
A rashonal speling wood, moroever, mateeryaly fasilitaet dhe taask ov dhoez to huum Inglish iz a forren tung. If our prezent speling iz difikult to akwier for dhoez familyar widh dhe spoeken langgwej, it iz very much harder for dhoez ignorant ov it.

No thanks. I'll stick with English as I learned it, even if I occassionally occasionally make embarasing embarrassing errors.

What words do you often find that you've misspelled, or as the Brits say "misspelt"? Confess in the Comments section below.

Where in Washington?
Jonathan Van Balen of Lexington, Ky., correctly identified the building on last week's mystery postcard. It was the Department of the Interior. Do you think you know the identity of this week's area landmark, which comes from the collection of Jerry McCoy?


E-mail your guess to me at The first correct answer I receive will get the official "John Kelly's Commons" prize: a PPP. (That's a Post Pulitzer Postcard.)

By John Kelly  |  February 8, 2009; 8:39 PM ET
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My youngest daughter (now 26) was an excellent speller until she encountered the educational innovation of "whole language" in elementary school.

Many people do not seem to distinguish between "to" and "too." Hopefully they do know what "two" means. Part of the confusion is that English is, to put it politely, a hybrid language. And Americans seem to be readier than Brits to incorporate terms from other languages.

Posted by: reddragon1 | February 9, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I am unable to spell "Exercise" without a spell-checker and frequently mangle it enough that spell-check has no idea what I am shooting for. I have trouble with spelling "occasionally" most of the time too. Traveler/traveling always ends up with an extra l when left to my own devices.

Posted by: newhdl | February 9, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

A few years ago I posted a notice on Craig's List. Unfortunately for me, my ad was flagged. [gosh, I hope I spelled that last word correctly.]

Basically I wanted to exchange a service of daily cooking for room and board. I ended my ad by saying, "If you are interested in a symbiotic relationship, call..........."

Webster has two very different meanings listed for "Symbotic":

1: the living together in more or less intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms

2: a cooperative relationship (as between two persons or groups)

Obviously, I meant the second [I think ;)

Posted by: iremembrmama | February 9, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

John: You comment on the Spelling Societys 1913 passage of Nue Spelling (no longer promoted): 'No thanks. I'll stick with English as I learned it.'
First, the spelling (like pronunciation) is not the language. You can stick with English using any understandable spelling. Texters (mostly!) stick with English.
As you learned it: How did you learn spelling? I too am a 'good speller', but was still having spelling lessons in my last year at high school!
Professionals and tradespeople dont learn fundamentals of mastering their tools of trade at the end of their training.
Italians learn to spell at 6 or 7 and then go on to apply it to their later learning.
If we adjusted our spelling regime to a standard similar to Italys, our kids could do that, too, and not waste years of school time struggling to master its confusion, time which could be applied to subjects of greater importance. Fewer of us would be functionally illiterate.

Posted by: a-h-campbell | February 9, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

But a-h-campbell, Italians don't have any problems with spelling - in fact, they don't even have a verb for it in Italian! They call it "lo spelling." Every letter has one pronunciation only.

Posted by: rpkelly | February 9, 2009 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Ok, people, please note: There is no "Q" in barbecue, any more than there is in "rescue" or "cucumber." If it were spelled "barbeque," it would be pronounced bar-beck, similar to "unique" or "antique."

Posted by: PeterDM | February 10, 2009 6:03 AM | Report abuse

My personal one that I can't seem to get straight in my head is capital vs capitol.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | February 10, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

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